writing01Writing a sympathy message to a person who has lost a loved one can be one of life’s most awkward and challenging endeavors. It is a task many people avoid altogether, for fear of saying the wrong thing. And yet, acknowledging another person’s loss can make a meaningful difference.

This past year has not been a kind one for me in terms of personal loss. Friends and family also have lost loved ones: fathers, mothers, brothers, nephews, spouses, colleagues, grandparents, dear friends, in-laws, cousins, daughters, sons – and yes, beloved pets – the list of those we have collectively lost goes on too long.

So how does one go about crafting a sympathy message? Although there aren’t many “wrong” ways to express sympathy, every situation and individual is different. Whether we keep our messages simple and brief, rely upon the message in a commercial greeting card, or hand-write a heartfelt missive about what the person meant to us, our relationship with the bereaved is the most important factor.

Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook who lost her husband last month in a tragic accident, posted a moving and eloquent essay about coping with a life changing loss. “While the experience of grief is profoundly personal, the bravery of those who have shared their own experiences has helped pull me through.”

“Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not,” she added.

Emily Post’s Etiquette, in a chapter on loss, grieving and condolences, suggests, “One simple rule should guide you: say what you truly feel. A single sincere line expressing the genuine feeling you had for the deceased is all you need to write.”

Seven and a half years ago, I took an unplanned leave to fly back east to be with my critically ill brother and to support my sister-in-law, niece and nephew during a difficult time. For the most part, those were quiet, sad days. The house phone went unanswered and few visitors were allowed.

During that time, I received a somewhat unorthodox gift – an almost daily e-mail from a work colleague. Each message was preceded with some version of “I am sorry to bother you, but,” that then would be followed by a somewhat insignificant question about a work-related matter.

Perhaps this would not be right for everyone, but for me, that connection with my normal working day, the human interaction, and the unstated kindness behind the messages were all appreciated.

With the rise of social media as a primary form of communication, announcements of a person’s passing on social networks have become more common. While not all are in agreement about the appropriateness of this use of social media, it is clearly the quickest way to reach the broader intended audience beyond immediate family and close friends.

As a social media user and follower, I initially was somewhat perplexed by this. But upon reflection, I realized that the message now had reached far beyond the most critical people to connect with a broader audience. In short, it is no different to use social media than to post an obituary in the newspaper.

Depending on the circumstances, one might also send a message of condolence via email or social media. Generally, however, I also keep a handful of sympathy cards on hand, enabling me to craft a hand-written message and mail it in a timely fashion.

Expressing condolences is not easy. While there are no rules, it serves the purpose of letting others know that you care and are thinking of them. There are of course many other ways of demonstrating sympathy. A phone call, a note with flowers, a home cooked dish, your presence at a memorial, a hug, or any other act of kindness are all very meaningful.

When one absolutely does not know what to say, there even are online templates for writing a condolence letter. In most cases, a card and a line or two suffice to convey the message. And while a written note is not required, sympathy expressed in any form will demonstrate respect for the deceased and, more importantly, for the bereaved.


In loving memory of Ian Montgomery Graham, May 10, 1982 – September 14, 2014






This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. A moving and timely post. Thank you.

  2. This is beautifully expressed, Marcia. I too have had a year of significant losses. Thank you.

  3. Comment sent via email by Nancy B.: I have two little books I have occasionally consulted when at a loss for words. I can’t recall where or when I got them but they have been a help from time to time. One is Just a Note to Say by Florence Isaacs (1995) and the other is The Art of the Handwritten Note: A Guide to Reclaiming Civilized Communication by Margaret Shepherd (2002). These are probably old news to you, but just in case! We librarians must share references, eh?

  4. Nice to read and reflect on my own sympathy cards. Thank you!

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